What is Set Point Theory? (and is it legit?)

I talk about set point a lot with my clients and I know that a lot of people don’t know what this means. Most people think that weight is something entirely in our control, that we can manipulate our weight through diet and exercise and achieve any ‘look’ that we want. Set point theory says this isn’t quite the case and I want to explain why in today’s post.


I have been rereading the book Health At Every Size (and posting video recaps as a read along series, so be sure to check those out if you are interested!) and the early chapters of the book dive deep on set point. In short, the theory states that each person’s body has a weight range (that is about a 10-20 pound range) in which it functions best and in which it will always fight to settle. The book cites an example in which researchers gathered 100 volunteers and put them through a weight loss study. When individuals gained weight above their initial weight (by only 10%!) their metabolisms sped up. When individuals lost weight by 10% their metabolisms slowed down. What does this mean? This means your body is working pretty hard to maintain a steady weight! Your metabolism controls the amount of energy your body burns. If you gain weight outside of where your body wants to be and your metabolism speeds up, it will be burning more energy than it was in order to decrease your weight back to your set point range. The same thing happens on the other end and you will burn less than usual so that some of the energy you take in will be stored as fat to promote weight gain back to a point within your set point range.


In addition to this human example, there have been studies performed on mice that show when mice are fed a diet much higher in fat and sugar than their normal diet they gain weight followed by a spontaneous return to their original weight when their diet returned to normal (NOT restricted!). This means that the mice naturally lost weight without dieting. The same is true in the opposite direction and the mice gained weight after a period of weight loss due to restricted eating which mimicked a diet.


Why is this important? The most important reason to think about set point weight is in order to create realistic health goals rather than arbitrary weight goals. If our bodies prefer to be at a certain weight, then who are we to choose it and use any means to get there? Understanding that we can naturally return to a size that is optimal for us can help us to focus on healthy behaviors rather than the number on the scale. If you are engaging in behaviors that promote your health (eating a varied diet, getting exercise, drinking enough water, sleeping enough, managing stress, maintaining healthy relationships) then your biology will do the rest.
It might be disappointing to read this and think that set point means it might not be biologically possible to achieve the weight you thought you wanted. In that case, I encourage you to think about how you define health. Are you actually thinking about measures of health or are you focused on physical appearance only? Those two things are very different (and might warrant another blog post!), and if you are engaging in the behaviors mentioned above to maintain good health, how can you work towards accepting the size that you are when you are in good health?

 One option is to work with a HAES dietitian, and you can click over to my services or contact page to learn more and reach out about working together.May 28, 2020

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